A Class Science?

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 15, 2011

For working-class thought, the moment of discovery has returned. The days of systems-building, of repetition, and vulgarity elevated to the status of systematic discourse are definitively over. What is needed now is to start again, with a rigorously one-sided class logic - courage and determination for ourselves, and detached irony towards the rest. (Tronti 1964: 4)

When, in 1966, Tronti’s contributions to Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia were reprinted in the book Operai e capita Ie, they were to be overshadowed there by a previously unpublished essay on ‘Marx, labour-power, working class’. Written in the same year as Lire Ie Capital, the piece was also, in its own way, a symptomatic reading of the critique of political economy. As the title suggests, it took as its starting point two central categories in Marx’s work in order to draw out the methodological premises for a class science. Unlike some of Althusser’s epigones, however, Tronti did not believe that such a science could ever depend upon purely internal proofs for verification. If theory necessarily informs practice, allowing us to order ‘facts’ and to pierce the world of mere appearance, then it was equally true that certain theoretical advances were possible only by means of practical breakthroughs. In this vein Tronti set out to filter a reading of Marx through the struggles of the early 1960s, seeking to escape the ‘petrified forest’ of vulgar Marxism which presently dominated the thought of the Communist movement. For classical workerism, as Negri (1983: 94) has noted, theory was a weapon to be used ‘both as a scientific lever and as a practical club’. The working class was crude and menacing: so too must be its science. All great discoveries - ‘ideas of simple men which seem madness to the scientists’, as Tronti put it – had been made by ‘dangerous leaps’, by breaking ‘the thread of continuity’. Today too a new horizon was demanded: ‘blind, minute analyses’ were best left to pedants (Tronti 1971: 11, 12).

‘Knowledge is tied to struggle. Who knows truly hates truly.’ The working-class point of view was thus ‘a non-objective social science which makes no pretence of objectivity’, its motivation being fuelled instead by the class hatred ‘of that part which wishes to overthrow society’ (Tronti 1971: 14, 232, 245). In the introduction to his unpublished Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law of the early 1840s, Marx (1975a: 187) had first proclaimed that part to be the proletariat, whose secret was ‘the dissolution of the hitherto existing world order’. Thus the first section of Tronti’s essay sought to find, within Marx’s early works, the gestation of the category labour-power, that peculiar commodity sold by the worker to capital. According to Tronti, its origins could be traced back to the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, a piece he was anxious to recover from the hands of those humanists and existentialists who had so bedevilled Althusser. But the pre-1848 texts were marked by considerable confusions, from which Marx had been freed only after a push from the outside:

Abstract labour already exists as labour-power in Marx before 1848. Labour-power already exists as commodity. But it is only the revolutionary passage of ‘48 which lays bare in Marx’s head the theoretical process that will carry him to discover the particular content of the commodity labour-power. The latter is no longer tied simply – through the alienation of labour – to the historical figure of the worker, but rather – through the production of surplus value – to the birth of capital itself. (Tronti 1971: 130)

It was this practical catalyst, he asserted, which had allowed Marx both to fuse and to surpass the thought of Hegel and Ricardo. Here Tronti echoed the approach of Raya Dunayevskaya, whose text Marxism and Freedom had emphasised the dialectic between theory and class activity:

All of history is the history of the struggle for freedom. If, as a theoretician, one’s ears are attuned to the new impulses from the workers, new ‘categories’ will be created, a new way of thinking, a step forward in philosophic cognition. (Dunayevskaya 1958: 89)

Tronti’s approach to theoretical discovery was very much the same, with the added qualification that an often fortuitous relationship existed between enquiry and its results. Indeed, in certain circumstances serendipity could even become a methodological principle:

[U]nknown worlds wait to be explored, and the vicissitudes of those who try to find a new route to the Indies, and precisely because of this discover other continents, are very close to our current mode of procedure. (Tronti 1971: 5)

Here, it would seem, there was no place for teleological rabbits pulled out of the hat at the last instance. Yet Tronti was himself to prove far from consistent in applying such an open-ended notion of theoretical enquiry; ultimately, his critique would remain trapped within its own conceptual terms, a metaphysic unable to realise that interaction with the real world for which it yearned.

This weakness would reveal itself most fully in the central section of ‘Marx, labour-power, working class’, wherein Tronti sought to deepen Quaderni Rossi’s earlier reading of capital as a power relation. So-called economic laws, he argued, had to be rediscovered as political forces, behind which lay the motor of working-class struggle. This was true above all for the cornerstone of the critique of political economy, the law of value. It was wrong, Tronti held, to interpret this law as proof that workers produced all wealth in society: such an argument was both moralistic and incorrect. The crucial point, rather, was that in assuming labour as the measure of its value, capital had acknowledged its dependence upon a unique commodity, one with the potential to destroy it completely (Tronti 1975: 225, 230). From this point of view,

[t]he labour theory of value means labour-power first, then capital; it means capital conditioned by labour-power, set in motion by labour-power ... Labour is the measure of value because the working class is the condition of capital. (ibid.: 224-5)

To refuse such a function within the valorisation process, Tronti believed, would prove the most coherent means to dismantle the class relation. Now that labour, with the generalised use of mechanised production, had lost ‘all individual character, and, consequently, all charm' (Marx and Engels 1972: 39), such a strategy of opposition to wage labour found its material reference point in the modern working class, which

has only to look at itself in order to understand capital. It has only to combat itself in order to destroy capital. It must recognise itself as political power, and negate itself as productive force. (Tronti 1971: 261)

In posing the antagonism between capital and labour in these terms, Tronti could claim no less a precursor than Marx himself, for whom a Communist society was one in which work – the tyranny of economic necessity – would no longer regulate people’s lives. According to the German revolutionary, capital was not a thing to be taken over and managed in a new fashion, but a social relation based upon a process – the self-expansion of value – which must be abolished as a prerequisite of human freedom (Marx 1975b: 278-9). When, after him, most leftists had envisaged their goal instead as a society at whose centre stood the workers reunited with their products, only a handful were to raise their voice in opposition. One of these was James Boggs, a former member of Correspondence whose critique of American unionism would appear in the pages of Classe Operaia. In The American Revolution, Boggs pictured a looming ‘workless society’, in which it would be ‘technologically possible for men [sic] simply to walk out on the streets and get their milk and honey’. To his mind, the strongest push for such a compact would come not from factory workers, busy defending their jobs, but from the ‘outsiders’ whom society had marginalised. ‘The workless society’, he concluded, ‘can only be brought about by actions and forces outside the work process’ (Boggs 1963: 53, 58). Tronti’s line of thought led him to exactly the opposite conclusion: only those who actually produced surplus value could block its accumulation, and with it the reproduction of the capital relation. Yet if such an argument was rigorous in its logic, Tronti’s efforts to give substance to the crucial passage from a mass of individual labour-powers to a class of workers would prove less successful.

‘What the working class is cannot be separated from how it struggles’ (Tronti 1971: 200). Having established the sphere of production as the privileged terrain within which, through struggle, the class composition of workers experienced a ‘political leap’, Tronti turned to what he saw as currently the most widespread form of working-class opposition to capital. This, he claimed, was exemplified by the passive, sullen denial of any but the most minimal collaboration within the labour process. If passivity was sometimes the product of a political defeat, as Panzieri had held, it could also arise in the wake of a new level of capitalist development. According to Tronti, these two manifestations had become entwined ‘in the past few decades’; while passivity remained a barrier to revolutionary activity, it also represented ‘an opting out of the game, a flouting of the social interest’ (ibid.: 202, 261, 262). Having reached this point, however, the essay’s argument simply ground to a halt, unwilling or unable to delve beneath the surface appearance of the phenomenon of passivity. Instead, Tronti’s refusal to budge from the highly abstract realm inhabited by ‘pure’ labour-power would lead him to postulate a series of suggestive if ultimately vacuous notions, such as his description of passivity as a form of ‘organisation without organisation’. Last but not least, it led him to take refuge in t~e triumphalist assertion that ‘Many experiences have failed. Ours will not fail’ (ibid.: 259; 262).

Polemicising with the latterday Quaderni Rossi and its efforts to construct a ‘model’ of socialist society with which to inspire workers, Asor Rosa would argue:

If there are reasons why the working class must overthrow and smash the domination of the capitalist system, they certainly cannot be found outside the material, objective characteristics of the class itself – Marx has at least taught us this. (Asor Rosa 1965: 39)

From this vantage point, perhaps the most important bequest of ‘Marx, labour-power, working class’ lay in its instruction that the Italian new left discover ‘what has happened in the working class since Marx’ (Tronti 1971: 263). In the pursuit of such understanding the work of Tronti himself, with its hermetically sealed categories, could only be of limited utility. Ironically, the ability to push parts of Marx’s conceptual apparatus towards their limits, in the process discerning certain aspects of workers’ behaviour without leaving the realm of theory, had become both his gift and his doom. Like Moses before him, Tronti would glimpse, but not himself enter, the promised land.